David Godman: No, that wasn’t the criterion at all. Initially, my aim was to bring into the public domain accounts by devotees of Bhagavan that hadn’t been published before in English. I make no judgments about spiritual maturity or accomplishments. My prime consideration was, ‘Has this been published before in English, and if it hasn’t, is it interesting enough to print now?’
John David: So you don’t in any way suggest in the book that they’ve reached this or that state?
David Godman: I let people speak for themselves. The second chapter of part one of The Power of the Presence, for example, is about a man, Sivaprakasam Pillai, who spent fifty years with Bhagavan. I have already mentioned him; he was the person who recorded the answers that Bhagavan wrote in the sand in 1901. In many parts of this chapter he’s lamenting ‘I’ve wasted my life’, ‘I’m worse than a dog’, ‘I’ve sat here for many years without making any progress’.
John David: But this man might have got it in that period, even if he thinks he didn’t.
David Godman: In Bhagavan’s day there was a daily chanting of Tamil devotional poetry. There was a fixed selection of material that took fifteen days to go through. Sivapraksam Pillai’s poems were part of this cycle. Every fifteen days the devotees would sit in front of Bhagavan and chant ‘I am worse than a dog,’ and so on. Somebody asked Bhagavan, ‘This man has been here fifty years and he is still in this state. What hope is there for us?’ Bhagavan replied, ‘That’s his way of praising me’. When Sivaprakasam Pillai died Bhagavan commented, ‘Sivaprakasam has become the light of Siva’. Prakasam means ‘light’, so this was a pun on his name.
John David: This suggests that he had achieved this second, final state.
David Godman: Bhagavan himself only gave public ‘certificates of enlightenment’ to his mother and the cow, Lakshmi. He did indirectly hint that other people had reached this state, but he would never name the names. He only named those two after they died.
John David: Let me ask this question differently. In the collective consciousness of the ashram and the people who are associated with it, are there certain people who, somehow, everyone agrees on? Are there people that everyone accepts as enlightened, even though Bhagavan didn’t publicly acknowledge their state?
David Godman: You’ll never get everybody to agree on anything around here, but probably the most widely revered was Muruganar. He’s an obvious candidate because right from the 1920s onwards he was writing Tamil poetry that spoke of his own realisation. He wrote more than 20,000 verses, and in a large number of them he was declaring his enlightenment. Many of these were published in Bhagavan’s lifetime, and Bhagavan made no attempt to discourage the notion that these were true accounts. Bhagavan often read out extracts from these books, and this convinced many people that the contents must have been true.
John David: Are there some other candidates that Bhagavan himself seems to acknowledge?
David Godman: There’s a very interesting ‘back door’. Both his mother and Lakshmi the cow were given traditional burial rites that are reserved, according to an ancient Tamil scripture, for enlightened beings. During Bhagavan’s lifetime only one other devotee was buried in this way: a Muslim man called Mastan who passed away in 1931. He is relatively unknown, but when he died Bhagavan immediately sent Kunju Swami to his village, which is about forty miles away, with instructions to build the kind of shrine that he ordered when his mother died. I would take this to be a very strong but indirect endorsement of this man’s state.
John David: There are many people nowadays who travel around the world giving satsang. Many of them place themselves in Bhagavan’s lineage. Would you like to say anything about this?
David Godman: First of all, Bhagavan never authorised anybody to teach, so anyone who claims they’ve got Bhagavan’s permission to teach isn’t telling the truth. People might claim they are in the Ramana Maharshi lineage, which means that Bhagavan is their Guru or their Guru’s Guru. I don’t necessarily think that this gives people authority to teach. Authority to teach can come from someone who has realised the Self, and it can also come from the Self within. It was the power of the Self that gave Bhagavan himself the authority to speak and teach. No human teacher gave him that authority.
Papaji used to say, ‘If you are destined to be a Guru, the Self within will give you the power to do the work. That authority doesn’t come from anywhere else, or anyone else.’
Papaji told me once that Arunachala gave Bhagavan the power and authority to be a Sadguru. I think most people would agree with that. Bhagavan was never authorised to teach by a human Guru, because he didn’t have one. In fact, I don’t think Bhagavan particularly wanted to be a teacher. In his early years on the hill he tried to run away from his devotees on three occasions, but he never got very far because he was severely limited by his love of Arunachala. There’s a limit to how well you can hide yourself on Arunachala. If you are willing to run away to the Himalayas, you can get away with it, but if you are just dodging from rock to rock in Tiruvannamalai, people will catch up with you sooner or later. After the third unsuccessful attempt, Bhagavan realised that it was his destiny to have people around and to teach them.
John David: Can we go back to the story of Bhagavan’s life? I have been very struck by the stories about his final days. He had a small cancer on his arm, which could have been easily treated by western medicine, but he never gave it much interest.
David Godman: He did receive the best western medical treatment. He had four operations, which were all done by very competent surgeons, but it was a malignant growth that kept coming back. The only thing that might have cured him was amputation. He drew the line at that and refused to have his arm amputated. You shouldn’t get the impression, though, that he wanted all this treatment. Whenever he was asked what should be done, his reply was ‘Let nature take its course’. The doctors were brought by the ashram authorities and by devotees who didn’t want to see him suffering. Bhagavan accepted all their treatments, not because he felt that he needed to be cured, but because the various treatments were offered as acts of devotion. Allopaths, homeopaths, ayurvedic doctors, nature cure experts and herbalists all came, and he accepted all their treatments. He didn’t really have much interest in whether they succeeded or not because there was nothing left in him that could say ‘I want this to happen,’ or ‘I don’t want this’. He let everyone, one by one, play with his body. He let the surgeons cut him open; he let the herbalists put poultices on.
John David: In a sense that is how he lived his whole life. He basically let his whole life happen.
David Godman: Yes. He probably knew better than the doctors what would work for him and what would not, but he didn’t interfere. He let them do whatever they wanted to do. There’s one story from his final days that I really like. Some village herbalist came along and made a concoction of leaves and put it on his arm. The high-powered allopaths were horrified. They thought they were losing valuable time as this bundle of leaves was sitting on Bhagavan’s arm. Finally, they ganged up on this man and compelled the ashram manager to take the poultice off so they could get back to work with their scalpels. Even though Bhagavan had agreed to have this poultice on, he accepted the decision to take it off. I have already said that Bhagavan didn’t like to waste anything. He took the poultice off himself and put it on the neck of somebody who had a cancerous growth there and said, ‘Well, let’s see if it does you any good’. That person got better and Bhagavan died.
John David: In a way his whole life was a living example of total surrender to ‘life taking its course’. It seems to me that this is a message that doesn’t always come through because it’s the ‘self-enquiry’ that is connected to his name.
David Godman: I think the key word to understanding Bhagavan’s behaviour is a Sanskrit term, sankalpa, which means ‘will’ or ‘intention’. It means the resolve to follow a particular course of action or a decision to do something. That is a sankalpa. Bhagavan has said that this is what separates the enlightened being from the unenlightened. He said unenlightened people are always full of sankalpas, full of decisions about what they’re going to do next: how they are going to plan their lives; how they are going to change their current circumstances to benefit themselves the most in the long or the short-term future. Bhagavan maintained that the true jnani has no desire whatsoever to accomplish anything in this world. Nothing arises in him that says, ‘I must do this, I must be like this’. The title of my book The Power of the Presence actually came from an answer on this topic. I will read you what I wrote:
Narayana Iyer once had a most illuminating exchange with Bhagavan on this topic, an exchange that gave a rare insight into the way that a jnani‘s power functions:
‘One day when I was sitting by the side of Bhagavan I felt so miserable that I put the following question to him: ”Is the sankalpa of the jnani not capable of warding off the destinies of the devotees?”
‘Bhagavan smiled and said: ”Does the jnani have a sankalpa at all? The jivanmukta [liberated being] can have no sankalpas whatsoever. It is just impossible.”
‘I continued: ”Then what is the fate of all us who pray to you to have grace on us and save us? Will we not be benefited or saved by sitting in front of you, or by coming to you?…”
‘Bhagavan turned graciously to me and said: ”…a person’s bad karma will be considerably reduced while he is in the presence of a jnani. A jnani has no sankalpas but his sannidhi [presence] is the most powerful force. He need not have sankalpa, but his presiding presence, the most powerful force, can do wonders: save souls, give peace of mind, even give liberation to ripe souls. Your prayers are not answered by him but absorbed by his presence. His presence saves you, wards off the karma and gives you the boons as the case may be, [but] involuntarily. The jnani does save the devotees, but not by sankalpa, which is non-existent in him, only through his presiding presence, his sannidhi.”’
John David: Is that what the Dalai Lama and the Buddhists call ‘compassion’?
David Godman: I don’t know enough about Buddhism to comment on that. ‘No sankalpas’ means that in an enlightened being there are no feelings or thoughts such as, ‘I must help this person’, ‘this person needs to be helped’, or ‘this situation needs to be changed’. Everything is totally OK as it is. By abiding in that state, somehow an energy, a presence, is created that takes care of all the incoming problems. It’s like a desk in the outer office. All the incoming requests are processed, and processed very efficiently, in the outer office. The door to the inner office is closed, and behind it the jnani sits at his desk all day doing absolutely nothing. However, by abiding in his natural state the energy is created that somehow deals with all the requests that come in. The jnani needs to be there in the inner office, just being himself, because if he wasn’t there, the outer office wouldn’t be able to function at all.
John David: That would reinforce the time-honored idea that you have to go and sit with an enlightened one.
David Godman: I agree, but such people are hard to find. In my opinion there are very few of them.
John David: Well, I think your opinion has some authority because you have been living here for about twenty years.
David Godman: Twenty-five years.
John David: In those twenty-five years you have met many people who were with Bhagavan. You have an unusual, analytic way of looking at things; you have had your own practice here, and you have served several teachers in this lineage. That should be enough to give you some authority to talk about these things.
David Godman: I have opinions, but I am not an authority. Don’t try to make me into one. You can find many people who have been here twenty-five years or more, and none of them agrees with me. You are quite free to go and listen to them and believe anything they have to say.
John David: Is there anything else you’d like to say that somehow summarizes what we’ve been talking about?
David Godman: Find a teacher whose mind is dead and spend as much time as possible in his or her presence. That’s my advice to everyone who is serious about enlightenment.
John David: That’s interesting. We met a teacher in Rishikesh who basically said the same thing. He said, ‘You have to find a Guru’.
David Godman: There is a limit to what you can accomplish by yourself. Sitting in the presence of a true Guru will always do you more good than meditating by yourself. I am not saying that meditation is not useful. Intense meditation will purify the mind and it may lead you to a competent Guru, but being with a Guru is like freewheeling down a hill on a bike instead of pedaling uphill. Papaji had an interesting notion. He said that if you meditate intensively enough, you will accumulate the punyas, which are spiritual brownie points, that somehow earn you the right to sit in the presence of a realised being. However, he said that once you had entered the presence of a realised being, it was more productive to sit quietly and not make any effort at all. When you sit in the presence of such a being, it is the power of the Self coming off and through that person that makes you progress further, not anything you do there. I think Bhagavan would agree with this. He once told one of his devotees, ‘Just keep quiet. Bhagavan will do the rest.’
John David: Thank you.